Italy counts its dead at over 2500 with its stretched resources struggling to grapple with a gargantuan medical crisis sparked by the coronavirus. Reports have emerged that anyone showing symptoms of the disease who refuses to self-isolate risks being charged with causing injury and being jailed for six months to three years apart from being slapped with a fine. And if a “careless” coronavirus sufferer goes on to pass the bug to an elderly person or someone made vulnerable by a pre-existing health condition, they can be charged with “intentional murder” and can spend up to 21 years in jail.
Other countries are no less strict when it comes to dealing with such cases, though not surprisingly, the Chinese hand out the harshest punishments. China which had similarly threatened execution and long jail sentences during the 2002-03 SARS epidemic for anyone avoiding quarantine and spreading the disease has said it would severely punish 36 crimes related to the prevention and control of the epidemic in accordance with the law, in which violators could face the death penalty. Spreading rumours about the outbreak has been linked to “subversion of state power” and will attract swift and harsh punishment.
In the United States, depending on state and local statutes, individuals could face fines, criminal charges, and even jail time for breaking quarantine. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, “federal, state, or local public health orders may be issued to enforce isolation, quarantine or conditional release.”
In Hong Kong, police nabbed a part-time security guard at a shopping mall for allegedly writing on social media that multiple staff members had caught a fever and gone on sick leave. The messages “caused panic” and helped “breed paranoia”.
Singapore imposes severe penalties for non-compliance with the quarantine order, including fines or jail time. In Saudi Arabia, a fine of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) is imposed on people who do not disclose their health-related information and travel details at entry points.
In India, the central government has taken several measures to deal with the epidemic, including setting up of quarantine facilities and rescuing Indian citizens stranded abroad. Both the centre and state governments are empowered to regulate health-related matters.
The Epidemic Diseases Act is the main legislative framework at the central level for the prevention and spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. The Act empowers the central government to take necessary measures to deal with dangerous epidemic disease at ports of entry and exit. The Act also empowers the states to take special measures or promulgate regulations to deal with epidemics within their state jurisdictions.
Powers executed by the Union home secretary under the disaster management Act were “delegated” to the health ministry to enhance preparedness against the coronavirus outbreak. The Union home ministry order said the powers are exercised by the Union home secretary under Section 10 of the Act and he being the Chairman of the National Executive Committee (NEC), the powers are vested with him.
Under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, thus, any state government, when satisfied that any part of its territory is threatened with an outbreak of a dangerous disease, may adopt or authorise all measures, including quarantine, to prevent the outbreak of the disease.
Similarly, the central government, when satisfied that there is an imminent threat of an outbreak of an epidemic disease and that the provisions of the law at that time are insufficient to prevent such an outbreak, may take measures and prescribe regulations allowing for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and for the detention of any person arriving or intending to sail. Any person who disobeys any regulation or order made under the 1897 Act may be charged with an offence under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
It is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm or contemplate his disobedience as likely to produce harm. It is enough that he knows of the order which he disobeys, and that his disobedience produces, or is likely to produce, harm. Such offence, at the discretion of the trial magistrate, may be tried summarily. No suit or legal proceeding lies against any person or authority for anything done, or in good faith intended to be done, under this Act.
Under Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code, whoever malignantly commits any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
So far, testing in India has been done mostly on visitors coming in from abroad. The process involves a health officer who is appointed by the central government posted and empowered at the port of entry. The health officer may demand to see the aircraft journey logbook, which shows the places the aircraft visited. He may also inspect the aircraft, its passengers, and its crew, and subject them to medical examinations after their arrival.
The officer must follow specific precautions about communicable diseases that require a period of quarantine (such as yellow fever, plague, cholera, smallpox, typhus, and relapsing fever) and other infectious diseases that do not require a period of quarantine. He may prohibit the embarkation on any aircraft of any person showing symptoms of any quarantinable disease and any person whom the health officer considers likely to transmit infection. Regulations require that airline staff report any suspected cases or passengers who in their opinion, from observations made in-flight, may be suffering from symptoms of a quarantinable disease.
It is argued that quarantine affects the fundamental right “to move freely throughout the territory of India.” However, this right is subject to reasonable restrictions that the state may impose in the interest of public health.
Tracking them down
In the time of the coronavirus, panicky people have tried to escape quarantine and invited legal action
- An 18-year-old Kolkata patient of COVID-19, the son of a top bureaucrat in West Bengal, has reportedly flouted norms on returning from the UK. He was advised by airport authorities to get admitted to Beliaghata ID Hospital on March 15. He reportedly defied the authorities and went on with his social life and met many people. Finally, on March 17, the state health department forced him to get admitted, following which he tested positive.
- A Briton, part of a travel group, was among 20 passengers who were offloaded from a Dubai-bound Emirates flight at Kochi airport. He was under quarantine at a Kerala resort but left it and reached Kochi. Authorities stopped the plane and deplaned him. Meanwhile, the resort was closed even as the staff there expressed displeasure that they were not advised properly. Authorities were thinking of taking legal action against the Briton for violating the Public Health Act, the travel agent who coordinated the tour programme and the manager of the resort.
- A woman and her husband, a Google employee, returned to Bengaluru after a honeymoon in Italy. While the husband, who tested positive, was placed under quarantine, she took a flight to Delhi and then a train to Agra and hid in her parental home. It was only after the police was called in that she was taken to an isolation ward. As she and her father had misled authorities, they have been booked by the police under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
- A man under observation in the isolation ward of a district hospital in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, fled, but was tracked and brought back within hours.
- A couple from the US who had symptoms linked to the coronavirus were traced to Kochi international airport and put under isolation after they fled Alappuzha Medical College.
The Epidemic Diseases Act also gives wide-ranging powers to the states. In such emergencies, the state may delegate some of these powers to the deputy commissioners in the districts typically through state health acts or municipal corporation acts. A state government may also take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection, vaccination, and inoculation of persons travelling by road or rail, including their segregation in a hospital, temporary accommodation, or otherwise, if such persons are suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease. A state government, by general or special order, may also empower a deputy commissioner to exercise, in relation to his district, all the powers under Section 2 of the 1897 Act that are exercisable by the state government in relation to the state, other than to determine the manner in which and by whom any expenses are to be defrayed.
Many of these powers are prescribed in municipal corporation acts governing “major municipal areas,” or public health acts that also provide municipal-level commissioners or collectors with quarantine or other powers. These can be in relation to removal of a person to separate premises for medical treatment, cleansing or disinfecting any building or part of any building or any articles, taking special measures in case of the outbreak of dangerous or epidemic diseases.
The ambit of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act is wide enough to allow a state or a lower functionary in the administration, in dealing with an emergency caused by the outbreak of a dangerous disease, to seek or require the cooperation of the public or corporate bodies in the public or private sectors. If the desired cooperation is not forthcoming, a regulation may be imposed. Failure to obey or comply with restrictions imposed by such a regulation constitutes a punishable violation. Violations of quarantine laws (see box) have been reported from some places in India but it does not appear as if anyone has been punished.
—The writer is President, Confederation of Medical Associations of Asia and Oceania, and Heart Care Foundation of India and a former national President, IMA
Lead picture: UNI